Judge condemns care system after being forced to send mentally ill woman to jail

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The Independent Online

Judge Jacobs, sitting at Norwich Crown Court, was forced to jail Rebecca Gidney, 30, for a year because she had been diagnosed as having an untreatable personality disorder - and did not fall within the group of defendants who could be placed under the care of the mental health system. About 3,000 mentally ill people are estimated to be in the prison system for a similar reason.

"There are people in our prisons who should not be there," Judge Jacobs said. "They are a risk to others in prison and a risk to themselves. The prison regime is not designed to manage them. It is a problem that is not fully addressed."

Gidney's appearance before Judge Jacobs came after police found her locked in Jarrolds department store in Norwich with a knife and razor blade, and about to harm herself. She pleaded guilty to having a bladed article in a public place.

"When you come out of prison you need help," Judge Jacobs told her. "I have heard of your father's efforts on your behalf. You might do harm to yourself or others. I have no other way to deal with you except prison, but there ought to be some other way to deal with you."

Judge Jacobs, who is not known for taking a liberal stance with defendants, said it was wrong to send individuals such as Gidney to prison because their personality disorders did not qualify for mental health service provision. "It is a problem that is not fully addressed," he said.

Gidney's formative years, growing up with two older brothers in the Eaton district of Norwich suggested no mental health problems. But by the age of 12 she was behaving abusively and threatening those around her. Her parents sought advice from a local hospital and seven doctors - including psychiatrists. An early diagnosis suggested some form of personality disorder, but of a kind which remains undefined. Gidney's father Richard, whose role in seeking mental health provision for her was praised by Judge Jacobs, recently sought care at an establishment in Surrey. But he was told no place was available.

Gidney's behaviour has resulted in previous periods in jail - for offences including using threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, assaulting police, and making nuisance telephone calls. She left school at 15, with no qualifications.

She has taken to self-harm over the last 18 months, most recently in Holloway Prison, with razor blades. "She is cutting herself deeper and bigger now," said Mr Gidney. "She has become institutionalised in prison."

The mental health charity Sane said its attempts to prevent patients such asGidney being thrown into the criminal justice system were enshrined in a clause within the new Mental Health Bill, which was included in the Queen's Speech in May - though there is considerable opposition to that clause.

Marjorie Wallace, the chief executive of Sane, said: "Why should harming yourself [because of] mental pain be doubly punished by being criminalised? The danger of ignoring people who self-harm - or blaming them for their behaviour - is the risk of suicide which is greatly increased by self-harm."

Several self-harmers have killed themselves in recent years after being sent to prison. They include Sarah Campbell, 23, who died at HMP Styal in Cheshire, and Joseph Scoles, 16, who died at Stoke Heath young offenders institution in Shropshire in 2002.

The campaign group Inquest has led demands for a public inquiry into sentencing policies which have resulted in the female prison population in England increasing from 2,600 to 4,000 since 1997 and contributed to a record number of suicides .

Gidney's mother, Jennifer, said: "Rebecca has been in and out of prison since she was 17. Since then she has never been at home for a birthday. It's hard when she's at home but obviously we would rather her be at home than in prison. People who have personality disorders - though it's not [conclusively] established she has - often find it very hard to get useful and consistent care, and are often excluded from services. She won't get effective care in prison. The challenge is to understand what that behaviour means rather than to punish it. Sadly, it seems on this occasion not to be well understood."

Under the Mental Health Act a dangerous person with a personality disorder cannot be detained for treatment unless the it is likely to alleviate or prevent the deterioration of the disorder.